Many new photographers find that their images lack a certain feel or “pop.” While it is tempting to think that buying the newest version of your DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is the key to unlocking your hidden photographic potential, it is not. If you want to move your photos from “meh” to “wow!” there are two things you should focus on (no pun intended): composition and upgraded optics. This article is going to discuss the part of the camera through which the light passes—the lens. A premium lens (notice that I did not use the word “expensive”) is the only surefire way to improve your image quality instantly—not a new camera.
(If you are looking for a discussion about when to upgrade your digital camera, please read this article.)
It’s the Lens
In the days of film photography, the film was the “sensor,” so it was the lens that made all the difference in image quality—not the camera. While there were differences in the look and quality of different types of film, the lens was still the primary driver of physical image quality. Of course, in addition, there was the photographer’s input: Photographic technique and composition played a big role. And the camera’s tech could help an image: autofocus, motor drives, electronic metering, etc. At the end of the day, none of that supplanted the lens as the most important physical ingredient to image quality.
Enter the digital age and another variable was added into the image quality equation—the sensor. Suddenly, photographers of all different experience levels seemed to prioritize the sensor over the lens.
If you were a seasoned photographer who owned premium lenses that were compatible with the new digital cameras, this focus on sensors made sense. For the rest of us, it did not.
The Optical Advantage
As college photography teacher, I see many students using older cameras and making great photos with those legacy machines. One thing I notice when grading my student’s images is that it is the quality of the lens that makes the most difference in their photographs. A student shooting with an older camera with a premium lens will constantly produce higher-quality images than a similarly skilled student with a newer camera and a standard “kit lens.”
A “kit lens” or “kit lenses” are the lens(es) that may have come with your camera—usually an 18-55mm and/or 55-200mm zoom lens. While these lenses are capable of capturing fantastic images, there is no debate that there are better lenses available.
Instant Improvement of Image Quality
While a premium lens will not automatically make you a better photographer, it can instantly improve your image quality in a way that no other camera accessory can (the tripod would be my second-place improvement tool)—especially when compared to entry-level kit lenses.
There are two basic genres of upper-level lenses: 1) the “pro” zoom lenses that usually have an f/2.8 maximum aperture (or wider) like a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8, and 2) almost any prime lens (a lens that has a fixed focal length). Does this mean you need to have a boatload of cash on hand to get a “pro” lens for your aging digital camera? Not at all. My personal recommendation is to grab a relatively inexpensive 50mm lens or, if you are shooting with a cropped-sensor camera, a lens with a 50mm equivalent focal length. This is, by far, the most optical bang for the buck and the fastest way for you to improve your image quality because they can be acquired for just over $100, in some cases.
Other Optical Options
Beyond the “nifty fifty” lens, there are other lenses you might consider that won’t break the bank.
One bit of research you can do is to look at the metadata of your favorite photographs (regardless of how long you have been taking photos) and look at what focal lengths you seem to prefer most when using your kit zoom lenses. Are you shooting wide or telephoto? How wide? How telephoto? Chances are, you can find a relatively inexpensive prime lens in that focal-length neighborhood.
In the portrait world, the 85mm f/1.8 lenses are similar to their 50mm f/1.8 brethren in that they represent fantastic quality at an affordable price.
For street and general photographs, you could stick with focal lengths around 35mm or 50mm and look for lenses with f/2 apertures.
If you are a fan of zoom lenses and not excited about a fixed focal length prime lens, the next step beyond the kit lens is probably an f/4 maximum aperture zoom like an all-purpose 24-120mm f/4 or 24-105mm f/4 lens (or their cropped sensor equivalent lens).
Speaking of the f/4 aperture, there are some beautiful prime telephoto lenses around 200mm and 300mm with that maximum aperture that, again, provide exceptional value for the optical quality.
For more thoughts deeper into the subject of graduating from the kit lens, click here.
Take Better Quality Images
If you are not completely thrilled with your photographs, we want to help you get better images. Not only does B&H want to help you upgrade your optics, but we dive into composition, photographic technique, and the elements of the image here on Explora.